A little reminder of why we're in California (and a look back at Vermont)
Rain... finally!

The TTB's new AVA rules: a well-meaning step in the wrong direction

I was surprised with how quickly the TTB published new draft rules to resolve the issues surrounding the approval of new AVAs that might conflict with existing brand names, or that are nested within other existing AVAs. [I wrote about this a few weeks back at some length.] 

A first reading of the new TTB proposals suggests an honest effort on their part to create more rigorous protections of the future use of place names as brands while redressing possible negative financial implication for brands created after 1986 who use a viticultural area as a part of their brand name.  However, we believe that it takes the wrong approach, would set United States regulations further at odds with our responsibilities under international law, and would set a dangerous precedent not just for the geographical labeling of wine, but also of other agricultural products.

The crux of the proposal suggests a rule whereby wineries that registered a brand name between 1986 and 2005 which later was adopted as a viticultural area may continue to use their brand name but must make a "statement which the appropriate TTB officer finds to be sufficient to dispel the impression that the geographic area suggested by the brand name is indicative of the origin of the wine".  Labels approved after 2005 have no such protection, and wineries will be notified upon the approval of any new COLA (Certificate of Label Approval) if there is a chance that it may one day conflict with a place name.

In addition, the new regulations address the nesting of AVAs within other AVAs, which has been done for centuries in other countries and for decades in the United States.  The rules proposed include a frightening warning for those who (like the Paso Robles AVA Committee) would propose AVAs of greater specificity within an existing AVA.  The full paragraph is below, with the most alarming idea in bold:

"In any case in which an AVA would be created entirely within another AVA, whether by the establishment of a new, larger AVA or by the establishment of a new AVA within an existing one, the petition must dispel any apparent inconsistency or explain why it is acceptable. When a smaller AVA has name recognition and features that so clearly distinguish it from a larger AVA that surrounds it, TTB may determine in the course of the rulemaking that it is not part of the larger AVA and that wine produced from grapes grown within the smaller AVA would not be entitled to use the name of the larger AVA as an appellation of origin or in a brand name."

The Napa Valley Vintners Association quickly objected both to the expansion of the grandfathering clauses to cover an additional twenty years of brand approvals and to the curious departure from the international standards of appellation nesting.

In a letter to the other members of the Paso Robles AVA Committee, my dad proposed another solution that would strengthen, rather than weakening, place-name designation:

"If honest and accurate representations of the wine in the bottle to the consumer is the objective of the TTB then the problem of conflict that they are feeling is due not to the AVA system regulations but to the issuance of COLAs.  The owner of a COLA that is issued with a geographic name should be required to source 85% or more of his grapes from that geographic location, whether or not it is an AVA.  Installing such a rule would avoid all future conflicts between COLAs and AVAs.  It would mean that the wine in the bottle was made from grapes of the same geographic origin as the label implies.  It would inform the consumer reading a wine list or retailer solicitation without it being necessary for him to see a bottle disclaimer.  It would also eliminate the need for a rolling grandfather amendment.             

As for AVAs within AVAs, the precedent has already been set in the USA, since they already exist.  The larger AVA informs the consumer by determining the larger geographic location of the vineyard with which he will be more likely to be familiar.  The smaller AVA determines the more exact location of the vineyard(s) and their distinctiveness within the larger AVA.  That is the way all wine producing countries in the world regulate their identifications of geographic locations to best inform consumers.             

I am not for rolling grandfather exceptions.  There is an established regulation for 1986 and prior.  It should be followed.  People who find themselves in conflict with new AVAs, who have COLAs approved after 1986 should be given a length of time, say 5 years, to bring their sourcing into line or change the brand name or /and label.  After all, they are fraudulently representing the source of their grapes, and they know it.             

If I had my way, I would make people who have COLAs prior to 1986 that misrepresent the source of their grapes either conform by sourcing 85% from the geographic area or change their label and/or brand name in a delay of 10 years or so."

I believe that we have an opportunity to make a better system, and that the TTB's proposed new rules instead make a system even more riddled with exceptions, exemptions and disclaimers.  The first order of business is making comments to the federal government on their proposed changes in rulemaking.  To learn how to do so, visit Docket No. TTB–2007–0068 (at www.regulations.gov).